Celebrated Australian conductor Patrick Thomas shares how the original YPA’s launched his 35-year international career.

For almost 35 years, Patrick Thomas AM MBE was one of Australia’s busiest conductors, taking the podium of the major state orchestras, as well as holding the position of ABC Federal Conductor-in-Residence. During his illustrious career he also conducted performances by the Australian Opera (now Opera Australia) and the Australian Ballet, as well as directing the ABC’s Radio Chorus, the Adelaide Singers. His international engagements included performances with the Moscow Philharmonic, the Hallé Orchestra, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Munich Philharmonic and the BBC’s Symphony Orchestras.

Patrick Thomas’ long and distinguished career as one of the country’s most respected conductors stems from a specific moment, he believes, competing as a flautist in the very first ABC Young Performers Award, known then in 1944 as the the ABC Concerto and Vocal Competition.  In the wake of the announcement of the competition’s discontinuation by Symphony Australia, the retired maestro shares his story, illustrating why this competition has been one of Australia’s most invaluable platforms for classical music for over 60 years.

Patrick Thomas AM MBE conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 1978

In 1944, as a twelve year old flautist in Brisbane, I auditioned for the first-ever ABC Concerto and Vocal Competition, later titled the Instrumental and Vocal competition, and later still, the ABC Symphony Australia Young Performers Award. At that time, Brisbane was virtually a large sprawling town, where its leisurely tempo reflected the city’s heat and humidity. There was neither a Conservatorium of Music nor a Bachelor Degree Course in Music at the University of Queensland. Perilously close to our shores, World War II was grinding on, with thousands of American servicemen stationed in the city in case of invasion by the Japanese. Ration cards, bottle and aluminium drives were part of Australia’s war effort, as was the necessary dimming of lights in houses, buildings, trains, trams and motor vehicles in case of air raids. Shelters were everywhere, including zigzag trenches in school playgrounds.  

But Australia continued to preserve its burgeoning arts scene where it could. Earlier that year in August 1944, Eugene Ormandy, the charismatic conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra had visited Brisbane, as part of an Australian tour, conducting several concerts with a substantially augmented Brisbane Symphony Orchestra. It was my first experience of a professional level orchestra, and this formative moment inspired me to make music my life’s work. As I was already playing in an amateur orchestra when the ABC first invited applicants for its new classical performance competition, my parents agreed to let me apply.

Subsequently, as a semi-finalist, I made my first broadcast as soloist with the ABC’s Brisbane Studio Orchestra under Dr. Clive Douglas. Further broadcasts of my performances followed, and as well, engagements as an occasional member of the ABC’s then Brisbane Symphony Orchestra, which became the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in 1947. One memorable occasion was playing on my 14th birthday in what was Sir Eugene Goossens’ first-ever concert in Australia. This sequence of career-making opportunities continued over the years with public concerto appearances with the QSO under many conductors, and joining its ranks as a full-time member in 1951. Looking back, all these wonderful openings stemmed from one moment: my original entry in the ABC’s Concerto and Vocal Competition. Although never a State Winner, from the Competition came opportunities of pure gold that I would never have accessed otherwise.

Years later, during my long service as an ABC Conductor, I conducted numerous State and Commonwealth Finals Concerts for this wonderful competition throughout Australia, with the cream of instrumental and vocal talent. This far-sighted ABC innovation of 1944 has proved a springboard for hundreds of supremely gifted singers and instrumentalists. Not surprisingly, the Competition has provided a unique avenue for outstanding talent to work with our major orchestras, but not only as soloists. Many of today’s leading orchestral principals, opera singers, educationalists and music administrators around the world are numbered among past participants. Without doubt, the ABC Symphony Australia Young Performers’ Competition was one of this country’s iconic and most valuable assets sparking a life-long love of music in generation after generation of young musicians. I had hoped it would long continue its legendary work, and this loss is a devastating blow to the musical vibrancy of Australia that will have disastrous consequences for decades to come.